My wife called me from work today with news of a tragedy in our little town. Nothing has been confirmed, but the story around town is that a 16 year old student from our local school was found dead this morning. Suicide by hanging.
It's always striking to hear of a story like this. Of course I'm just assuming it's true, but even if it's not, my mind has been taken back a little more than a year when I wrote this piece:
I saw the picture and paused. It looked out of place. Page two of the local newspaper is not where you expect to see the picture of a pretty 18 year-old girl. Page two is for the obituaries. Sadly, the picture was not out of place.
I read through the words, trying to make sense of things. I see young folks like this in the obituaries once in a while. Usually it's from a tragic traffic accident or a long battle with disease. Last month a young woman was gunned down by her deranged father. But this obituary had no corresponding news item -- not even in this small town newspaper. So I continued to read. Family members were listed, including a couple of names I recognized. Funeral arrangements, memorials, the name of a local church she attended. . . it all seemed so wrong. What happened? I re-read from the beginning. Then I noticed that according to the obituary, she died "at her home." There was nothing about a long illness or any further information. Knowing funeral directors and obituary writers, I knew what this probably meant. Suicide.
I realized that I couldn't be sure, but it didn't stop my mind from wandering. What was this girl of eighteen living through which she thought could only be solved by ending her life? A boyfriend leaving? Pregnancy? Abuse? Shattered dreams? What could have been so horrific to make her think this was her only way out?
I will fully admit that I don't understand teenage girls. I didn't understand them when I was a teenage boy, and the fuller knowledge hasn't come just yet. I do realize that problems in the mind of a teenage girl are often magnified to an incredible degree by worrying about other people and their reactions. I know that priorities are different. I know that there is pain and angst, even among the happier teens. And I wonder what kind of private torture is going on in the hearts of people I think I know.
When Jesus spoke of "the least of these" in Matthew 25, he used the examples of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. These were the people who were in need and were so often turned away, like the robbed and beaten traveller who was ignored by even the "religious" until finally being rescued by the Good Samaritan. But when I hear the words "the least of these" two images flash in my mind.
One image comes from my time as a young adult working for college credit at a television station. This was an independent station at the time, with no network programming to fill air time in the less favorable time slots. Often in the late evening, the channel would show long form public service announcements and video from charitable organizations. It seemed that much of the video at that time focused upon the terrible famine in Africa, back in the days of the "We Are the World" and "Do They Know It's Christmas" charity records. And the video from these programs featured the same type of scene almost every time. The workers at the station had a simple name for these programs -- "Flies on Babies" because that's mostly what you noticed while watching. Over and over again, you saw small, malnourished babies with large eyes and many flies crawling around their lips, nose and ears. The viewer instinctively brushed his face, shooing these imagined insects. I am reminded of those fly-plagued infants when I think of "the least of these."
The other image comes from the time I have spent in neo-natal intensive care units (NICUs). Three of my four children have spent time in an NICU. One of them never made it home. Perhaps that's why this image seems so fresh in my mind; a small human form weighing less than two pounds, attached by wires to countless machines with blinking lights and beeping alarms. The chest labors to move up and down. The arms and legs are spread apart so that the caregivers can check the infant's bodily functions. The fingers are incredibly tiny. The entire baby looks so fragile. These miniature children also flash to my mind when I hear the phrase "the least of these."
But I flash back again to the picture of that 18 year-old girl who must have felt so lost that she saw no other answer in this world. It seems that her picture belongs among "the least of these" as well. Couldn't Jesus have easily included, "For I felt hopeless, and you gave me hope?" And if a teenage girl with at least some background in a church could feel so hopeless, then I pray that God would show the least of these to me before all hope is lost.
As Christians, we often drop the ball in caring for the hungry and thirsty, for the needy and the sick, and especially those in prison. However, even in principle, we know that the church must be doing what she can, corporately and individually to help these people. But there are also needs where we may not think to look. In "good" families. Behind the faces of smiling people. Maybe, just maybe, there are needs we can meet by responding in love to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps "the least of these" is closer than we may think.
May God show you "the least of these" who pass through your life, and my He grant you the strength and wisdom to do as He would do.